Rescue Me

In honor of National Cat Day I want to tell you about Bert.DSC_0314

Bert is a 10-year-old cat who has come to live with us after his human died this summer. I recently wrote about my sorrow and frustration at not being able to save her from the many challenges she faced. http://bit.ly/1GiK18I

I couldn’t save my friend, but I wound up rescuing her cat.

With his human companion suddenly gone and his already chaotic home upended by family members clearing it out, Bert seems to have decided that I was his. I was the only one he would let near him; he’d greet me with a purr and an invitation to rub his belly.

Cats are funny that way — they take your measure, make a decision, and don’t look back.

I agreed to take him in temporarily in spite of some very real concerns. Would he get along with Roxy, our cat-in-residence? Would he use a litter box after years of using his whole apartment as one giant one?  Plus, my husband needed convincing. 

But Bert needed somewhere to go and we decided to give it a try and hope for the best. After one day hiding in the bookcase, he attached himself to me, and hasn’t let go since. He happily uses his litter box and plays with his scratching toys. He and Roxy tolerate each other most of the time. He nuzzles and cuddles and has one paw on me at all times. He is in my lap right now.

The funny thing is, for months before he came to live with us, I had been talking about getting another cat. Not that I don’t love Roxy — but she’s not a lap cat, and I needed a lap cat. But I was afraid Roxy wouldn’t be too keen on the idea, so it remained an itch that wouldn’t be scratched.

But Bert needed rescuing and somehow that trumped all my previous hesitations. What I couldn’t do for myself — get another cat just because I wanted one — I could do for someone else.

Now maybe you don’t think that with everything going on in the world, God concerns himself with cats and the people who love them. But I do. I can imagine God saying, “Listen, you two need each other.” Maybe in His infinite mercy, God saw my sorrow over not being able to save my friend and gave me the pleasure of seeing Bert thriving under my care.

Maybe God is that loving and that kind.

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The Flip Side

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

For a few weeks in 2012, this picture was everywhere:  A New York City police officer offering a pair of boots to homeless man.  When I saw this photo, I was moved to tears by this officer’s love and humility.

“What Would Jesus Do? This.

When I looked closely at the picture I was shocked.  I knew that homeless, shoeless man.  I had seen him six years earlier, walking up Fifth Avenue in the freezing cold, without shoes or socks.  Unlike that cop, I didn’t go and buy him shoes.  I didn’t kneel to help him put them on.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And on a bitter cold day, right in front of beautiful Christmas decorations celebrating the birth of the Savior, I saw Christ suffering and kept on walking.

I wasn’t indifferent.  I was just paralyzed.

The sight of him began a frantic dialogue in my head: “I have to do something. Is it safe to approach him?  Should I buy him shoes?   How would I know what size? Maybe I could bring him into Lord and Taylor.  Would they even let me in with him?  Would he just turn around and sell the shoes and use the money for God knows what?”  As the questions swirled in my head, I kept walking in the opposite direction.

I was shaken for days afterward.  The sight of a homeless person wasn’t new to me — I’ve lived in the New York area most of my life, including the “bad-old days” of the 70s and 80s, when it seemed that every subway station and street corner was a great black hole of human need.  I was taught to look away, hold tight to my purse and keep moving. But this day was different.  I wanted to help, but didn’t know where to begin.  I wanted to do something, but felt utterly impotent.

This is the flip side of the Mighty Mouse delusion I wrote about in my last post.  Instead of feeling all-powerful to save, we can feel weak and small and useless. Just this morning, I looked at pictures of refugees emerging from the Aegean Sea with that haunted look in their eyes, and I thought —I am just one person, far away, with no useful expertise to offer.  Could I be more useless?

Instead of rushing in with fantasies of saving the day, we can let the enormity, the complexity or the intractability of the problem render us immobile.  The flip side of thinking ourselves more powerful than we are is believing we have no power at all.  Each is a serious misunderstanding of what God asks of us.

Sometimes we think that in asking us to feed the hungry, God expects us to eradicate hunger.  We think that in asking us to clothe the naked, God is expecting us to eliminate poverty.  Not so.  When Jesus says, “The poor you will have with you always,”  it is a sobering reminder that we live in a broken world that only the Second Coming will completely heal.  Still, this isn’t an excused absence from doing social justice.  We are still called to love, clothe, feed, visit and bear one another’s burdens.  But we do so knowing that the ultimate, complete restoration of God’s good creation is yet to come.

God is in charge of eternity.  We are responsible for today.  Regardless of the final outcome, every act of service and love is holy and sufficient in and of itself.   Ironically, several weeks after the policeman bought him new boots, that same homeless man was spotted, barefoot once again.  The cynics said, “See, he probably sold those boots and bought booze. That cop was a sucker.”  Maybe so.

Loving and caring for God’s people can be a messy business. It isn’t always clear what to do, when to do it, or how.  There’s no guarantee that you won’t be taken advantage of, or that what you do will really help.  But God only asks us to act, and to leave the outcome to Him.

We are not all-powerful.  We are not powerless.

The life of faith is lived in the tension between these two poles.  St. Ignatius put it this way:  “Act as if everything depends on you.  Trust as if everything depends on God.”

 

 

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Mighty Mouse and Me

mighty_mouse_using_pop_art_style_by_duceduc-d561xzj

My friend died and I am sad. But I am more than sad about when and how she died. I am profoundly sad about how she lived.

For as long as I’d known her, she lived with a variety of serious medical problems. Some she survived much to her doctors’ surprise; some were chronic and intractable. In addition to her overwhelming health problems, she lived in utter chaos. In her apartment, there was barely a path to walk amid all the piles of paper, newspapers, magazines, and just plain STUFF. The only clear surface where anyone could sit was on her bed, and “clear” is a relative term.

I accompanied her to doctor’s appointments. When she was in rehab after her major surgeries, I did her laundry, helped her pay bills, took care of her cats. I attempted to tackle some the mess in her apartment, throwing away bag after bag of trash, and corralling what was left into boxes with labels like “Top of Desk,” “Sofa” and “Table Next to Kitchen.”

I say all this not to tell you what a wonderful friend I was. I say this as a confession, because while I did these things out of love, I realized after she died that I was also trying to save her. I wanted to be the one who rescued her from her loneliness, from the home that was not fit to live in. I was going to be Mighty Mouse, swooping in to right all wrongs to the strains of my triumphant theme song: “Here I Come to Save the Day!”

Then she died and now it would never change. When I went to her apartment after she died, the boxes I packed three years ago were still there, stacked against the wall, now surrounded by a fresh layer of detritus. Those words, in my own handwriting — “Top of Desk,” “Sofa,” “Table Next to Kitchen” — mocked me and my fantasies of rescue. As I grieve the loss of my friend, I am also mourning my failure to be her savior.

I know how those words sound: full of hubris and delusions of grandeur. Yet, I suspect I am not alone in this. Many of us want to feel wise enough to know what someone needs and powerful enough and capable enough to provide it. Many of us want to believe we are wise enough to understand our own needs and self-sufficient enough to see to them ourselves. We like knowing we have a Savior in Jesus; we just don’t always live like we need one. If I admit I can’t be someone else’s savior, I have to admit that I can’t be my own either.

I am reminded of the words of Henri Nouwen: “It is Jesus who heals, not I. Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I. It is Jesus who is Lord, not I.” I can — and should — be loving, merciful, and self-sacrificing to others. I can — and should — do what is within my power to care for myself.   But I must be careful. I cannot cross that line from “serving” to “saving.” I cannot be seduced into thinking I have the power to  bind up the brokenhearted or heal deep wounds. That is Jesus’ delight. That  is Jesus’ mission, which can be accomplished through me, not by me.

My faith tells me that whatever disappointments, suffering and frustration this life had for my friend, they are gone now. She is with the God she loved and who loved her. Whatever struggles she had with her own limitations are gone. She is in the care of someone — the only one — who could truly save her. The same could be said of me, this side of Paradise.

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Welcome to Ordinary Time

always feel a little sad on January 7. The 12 days of Christmas have come and gone, and the decorations are put away for another year. The house looks naked without the garland on the mantle and the staircase, the bowls of deep jewel-toned ornaments, the ever-growing collection of Santas on the bookcase. And the corner of the living room where the tree has been standing since the day after Thanksgiving — Just what usually goes there?

I feel as empty as that corner looks.  The next great milestones of the Christian calendar  — Lent and Easter — are months away.  It’s back to every day life, with no familiar rituals, no shared traditions, in a season without a name.

Well, that last part isn’t actually true.  The time before and after Christmas and Easter — the great lodestars of the Christian life —  does have a name.  It’s called Ordinary Time. We live two thirds of the calendar year — 33 weeks — in Ordinary Time.

It’s hard not to feel that somehow these are the humdrum times, so dull they don’t even have a cool name. Where’s the hoopla of Advent and Christmas?  Where’s the spiritual rigor of Lent and the joy of Easter?  It’s easy to feel like I’m just marking time until the next spiritual  high.

Somehow, this all makes me think about Peter and his experience on the mountaintop with Jesus.  He has an awesome (in the true meaning of that now-overused word) experience when he sees Jesus transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah.   His first reaction?  “Let’s stay here forever”. Would you ever want to leave?   But Jesus says, no, we must go back down, down to “real” life, back to the demanding  crowds, conflict with authorities, back to the messy world He came to save.  He says, in essence, “We have to take this magnificent encounter with God and live it out in Ordinary Time.”

And so it is with us. The Christian life isn’t lived on the mountain. It’s lived in the everyday. And every day isn’t Christmas or Easter, and really, that’s a good thing. As wonderful as it would seem, we would get bored, we would take it for granted. You can’t live forever on the mountaintop without diminishing its power. And you can’t live forever in the valley without the nourishment, encouragement and wonder of the mountaintop experience.  Both are essential to a life of discipleship.

I guess that’s why the church calendar is often depicted as a circle.  The Incarnation and the Resurrection are the touchstones, for sure. But it’s in the weeks of Ordinary Time we figure out what difference these touchstones make in our lives. What difference does it make to me, sitting here in my office in 2015 that the Word became flesh? How is my life any different knowing that? Yes, Jesus was resurrected. But what does my resurrection life look like? What just happened and what am I going to do about it?

And then, these weeks of Ordinary Time lead us, inexorably, back to the next celebration of the Incarnation, the next celebration of the Resurrection, and hopefully, we aren’t the same as we were the year before. We can hope that the Holy Spirit has had another year to soften our hearts, to reveal our sin, to give us courage and hope and joy. And the next time we enter Ordinary Time, we will not be the same as the year before. And so it goes.

Two-thirds of our lives are lived in Ordinary Time. Two-thirds of the New Testament is a collection of narratives and letters telling believers what the events of the Gospel look like when they are lived out in the valley of everyday life.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.

[tweetthis] The Gospel’s true power to change the world and to change us lies in Ordinary Time.[/tweetthis]As wonderful as the Gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection are, its true power to change the world and to change us — then and now — is in the other two-thirds of the New Testament. The two-thirds that challenges us to think differently, live differently, love differently. The Gospel’s true power to change the world and to change us lies in Ordinary Time.

 

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